The fate of hundreds of thousands of Darfuris displaced by conflict has become even more uncertain as the Sudan government moves to shut down all camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Darfur. This comes amid renewed violence that has displaced thousands more in the area in the last few weeks alone.
Sudan’s Vice-President Hassabo Abdel-Rahman announced in a December speech to IDPs and officials in Al-Fasher, North Darfur that all IDP camps would be shut down by the end of 2016. The deputy called on camp residents “to choose within no more than a month between resettlement or return to their original areas.”
The rate of displaced due to the conflict is increasing dramatically with the number of displaced at United Nations site in Sortoni, North Darfur State rising to over 21,000 from 14,770 last week, the U.N. reported. (As of February 7, that number had grown to 37,000.)
The dismantling of the camps is part of a government policy to remove potential government detractors ahead of a renewed state effort to end rebellion movements in Sudan. During a speech to Sudan’s Air Force last September, President Omar Bashir renewed his commitment to end all rebellions across the country in 2016.
More Displaced as Violence Resurges
The directive to dismantle the IDP camps comes amid renewed January violence that many displaced Darfuris fear will be ongoing for months to come. Earlier this month, attacks by alleged Janjaweed on Muli, a village outside Geneina in West Darfur state, saw hundreds displaced, according to Geneina residents who spoke to Nuba Reports. According to an eyewitness in Geneina, at least 300 from Muli organized a protest in front of the state building before security personnel shot at them.
“The protesters, including many women and children, were attacked by security forces that used live ammunitions,” said the eyewitness who works for UNAMID in Geneina. The eyewitness, who requested anonymity, said that the protestors were again attacked as they tried to bury those killed during the demonstration.
Even before things calmed down in Geneina, government forces launched an offensive against rebel movements based in Jebel Marra, Central Darfur. “In the Western part of the Jebel (Marra), 17 villages were burned and over 10 villages were abandoned out of fear,” said Ahmed Abdu, a resident of Nertiti village in Jebel Marra over the phone. “In the northern part, 11 villages were burned and more than 1,000 were displaced to Tawila in North Darfur.” Pro-government militia also attacked the displaced residents from Jebel Marra in two IDP camps, Hamidyiya and El Shamaliya, news reports said.
More than 20,000 residents from Jebel Marra, including 14,403 children, were sheltering at an African Union United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) base, as of February 9.
The Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) Spokesman Col. Ahmed Khalif Al-Shami, however, told Nuba Reports that they do not target civilians and warned residents to stay away from the rebel-controlled Jebel Marra area. “We ask all citizens to stay away from those areas so they are not impacted by the battles,” Al-Shami said over the phone, stating that the battle would continue until they remove all rebel forces from the area.
The Displaced: Enemies of the State?
Over the years, the government has considered the IDP camps as breeding grounds for rebels.
The government has pushed for the dismantling of IDP camps for along time, claiming they invite foreign security agents who pose as employees for humanitarian organizations, according to a researcher at the University of Khartoum who prefers anonymity.
Security officials have interrogated IDPs, blocked their movements, arrested them and even assassinated IDPs throughout the Darfur conflict. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), a security research project that monitors Sudanese conflicts, claims roughly 46 percent of all organized armed conflict is made up of militias targeting civilians – especially pro-government forces such as Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces.
The Sudanese government has given the IDPs two options: choose between returning to their original homes or be resettled in urban areas. People displaced in Darfur told Nuba Reports that a return to the original areas is difficult. The conflict continues to rage and many are worried that the government could remove them by force. In January, people came together and held a conference in Kalma, one of the largest IDP camps in Darfur, and outrightrejected the dismantling of the camps because of security concerns.
“The camps are small, families have very little space to house them, but people are scared to leave because there is no peace,” said Amira Abdullah,* who was displaced by conflict herself and works for a government-affiliated association in Otash camp in South Darfur’s capital, Nyala. “If there was peace, we wouldn’t need camps. People will stay as long as there is insecurity.” She added that the government has proved to be capable of everything, even removing people by force.
Mariam Yahya*, a human rights lawyer working with the peace-talks brokered interim governing body for Darfur, the Darfur Regional Authority, believes the government is trying to dismantle the IDP camps to mask the ongoing conflict from local and international actors. “The state governors are so keen to not have camps in their states even though there is no substantial repatriation [due to] insecurity,” she said.
The Darfur Regional Authority in 2013 started to register IDPs for voluntary return but the numbers were insignificant, according to a UNHCR assessment. In Badda village, for instance, only 200 out of 4,800 returnees confirmed their permanent return. Repatriation remains temporary at best, Yahya explained, since many people leave the camps during the agricultural season to farm due to a lack of adequate support in the camps before returning later in the year.
A government official who works with displaced, however, told Nuba Reports the number of displaced in Darfur has increased due to international political and financial support to rebel groups.
“If Darfur is so unsafe, then how come the IDPs relocated to areas inside the region if there is insecurity instead of other states in Sudan?” he asked. The official, who requested anonymity, said authorities would dismantle the camps and block international aid organizations, inducing citizens to live in villages and towns.
The government’s decision to block international aid organizations include the United Nations African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). The hybrid mission’s mandate came to an end last June but was renewed for another year. The government is expected to discuss UNAMID’s exit strategy with the A.U. and U.N. in March after almost a decade in service.
A Referendum During Wartime
The government-proposed dismantling of IDP camps and UNAMID takes place ahead of a referendum on the administrative status of Darfur in April 2016 to determine whether Darfur continues as divided states or becomes one region. The government announced voting would start on April 11 and last three days – and has resumed voter registration in Darfur.
While the referendum is scheduled to take place in April as stipulated by 2011 Doha Document for Peace in Darfur, several IDPs Nuba Reports spoke to believe polling for such a decision is impossible in the current restive climate. “No state in Darfur is presently qualified to carry out a referendum,” Yahya said, “One of the largest constituency in Darfur is the IDP community and they don’t see that this is the right time because the conflict is ongoing.” On February 2, displaced people from Kabkabiya, North Darfur State, launched a three-day protest against the administrative polling, demanding authorities to address the insecurity instead of focusing on the referendum.
In the meantime, camps in Darfur continue to receive more IDP as the conflict continues to brew. As most IDP leaders were seeking to expand the camps to have room for the new arrivals, they now have to resist a tougher issue, the fight for the survival of the camp itself.
* Names have been changed to protect their identity